Coming into the 2018 season, catcher did not seem to be a strong position for the Brewers. However, according to BWARP, Milwaukee had two of the top nineteen catchers in MLB in Manny Pina and Erik Kratz. The majority of their contributions came on the defensive side as Kratz was a top 10 catcher according to Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) and Pina was also in the top 20. For a team which is not looking to spend top dollar, the tandem cost less than $2 million, as neither Pina nor Kratz was arbitration eligible. Based on Cot’s Contracts, the cost of that tandem could almost double in 2018. The problem with going into next season with that tandem is that their respective ages don’t give fans much hope for improvement, and that’s before considering that each player may be due for some regression.
Brewers Organization Catchers
The Baseball Prospectus top 2019 Free Agents list had four catchers in the top 50: Yasmani Grandal, Wilson Ramos, Kurt Suzuki and Jonathan Lucroy. Eliminating Lucroy, who was the second worst catcher who received regular playing time in 2018, the Brewers have three options if they wanted to dip into the free agent pool to try and upgrade the position.
Yasmani Grandal was ranked 9th best free agent this offseason and projections put him at least a three year commitment between $15-16M a year. At that salary, Grandal would rank second on the team in annual salary, only behind Ryan Braun. While Grandal is entering his age-30 season, he only trailed J.T. Realmuto in catcher Wins Above Replacement Player (BWARP) in 2018 and was close enough that one could consider him the best in baseball. Grandal may have been the most complete catcher as he ranked second in both Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and FRAA amongst catchers, which respectively measure offensive and defensive value, showing that he’s strong at both ends of the game.
If there’s one area of concern, it’s that most of Grandal’s defensive value came from framing. He led MLB in framing runs in 2018 but provided only slightly positive value for blocking and throwing runs. If the Brewers were to commit the resources necessary to sign Grandal, then they would need to believe his bat will age gracefully as well as that he can continue to provide defensive value through framing, which is not a given.
Wilson Ramos is a year older than Grandal and with his injury history projects for a three year contract at $36 million. He doesn’t provide much defensive value. In his last season before tearing his ACL, Ramos had a 10 FRAA. Since the tear, he’s -3.9. Amongst catchers who caught at least 2,000 pitches, Ramos ranked 35th of 61 catchers in FRAA, which make sense given his numbers: he’s not bad in any one area, but he also doesn’t stand out defensively.
Ramos will provide offensive value. In 2018, his True Average (TAv) was right behind Grandal and ranked fourth amongst all catchers. If you were concerned that a rate stat props up his value, then don’t worry because he was tied for seventh in VORP.
A big worry with Ramos would be playing time management. Prior to his knee injury, he maxed out at 131 games and 523 plate appearances. Last year he appeared in 111 games and went to the plate 416 times between Tampa and Philadelphia. While the Brewers don’t have any problems with rotating players, Ramos has no positional flexibility and would need to be paired with a competent backup who can cover somewhere between twenty-five to thirty-three percent of the playing time. Unless the market on Ramos falls short of projections, it’s difficult to see the Brewers making a strong play for his services because they’d also need to commit to a strong backup, perhaps straining the payroll too much for one position.
The last catcher in the top fifty is one who may make the most sense as a Brewer if he’s willing to leave his current club. Kurt Suzuki has had a late career renaissance at the plate in Atlanta, posting his two best TAvs in 2017 and 2018. In those two seasons, Suzuki started swinging more. Whereas prior to 2017, he was swinging at less than forty-five percent of the pitches he saw, he’s above a fifty two percent swing rate now, while also maintaining a contact rate above eighty percent. Suzuki finished sixth in both TAv and VORP amongst catchers in 2018, providing near equal offensive value to Ramos.
Suzuki does not provide much value behind the plate. He had a -5.5 FRAA in 2018, which was fueled by his poor framing numbers. He finished 52nd out of 61 catchers in framing runs and his modest blocking and throwing numbers couldn’t offset the framing numbers.
Suzuki’s numbers have increased as he’s played fewer games. He’s split time with Tyler Flowers in Atlanta, playing in 186 games over two seasons with less than 700 plate appearances. The good news is that his advanced age and limited playing time make him a potential cheap upgrade for Milwaukee. Projections have him at two years and $10 million, which is reasonable enough to make him a realistic alternative to Pina or Kratz.
If the team does decide to look to the free agent marker to upgrade the catcher position, it feels like Suzuki would be the target. He’s a low cost option who could provide outsized production when compared with his salary. For an organization that always looks for surplus value in their acquisitions, a player like Suzuki makes sense for the team. Grandal and Ramos are buzzier additions but the cost of those two veterans may not fit in the budget. The good news is that the team has options at different levels outside the organization, so they can negotiate from a position of strength.